English translation from the official periodical of RAIPON “Мир коренных народов живая арктика” (Indigenous Peoples’ World Living Arctic) No. 5, 2001

The Nenets language yesterday and today

N.Ya. Barmich, teacher of Nenets laguage, Cand.Sc. (philology) and Prof. Emer. at Herzen Russian Humanities Educational University

There are 34190 Nenets in Russia, of whom 26553 speak their own language. This accounts for 77% of the total number of the Nenets. I believe that this is a good value.

During the first half of the 20th century, there were some positive developments in the history and cultural life of the Nenets. In the 1930s, the Nenets introduced the written version of their language (first, it the language had used the Latin alphabet, but in 1936 they changed over to the Cyrillic alphabet). Literature based on the folk traditions of story-telling emerged. Periodicals in the native language were established. Amateur theatrical, dancing and singing groups were organized. At school, children were taught in the Nenets language. It looked like there was an opportunity for further development of the language and original culture.

However, modern state policy in relation to the nomadic people, as well as the secondary and university curricula, negatively impacted the study of the Nenets language.

A change over to a sedentary lifestyle affected the lives of new generations of Nenets. Children who grew up in towns and villages gradually forgot their own language, since the sphere of its utilization became narrow. Children who studied in boarding schools for many years, separated from home, did not know the cultural traditions, customs and economy of their people.

During recent times, the educational mechanism of learning the native language changed. In schools, language standards are not met, and native language courses are not in the curricula. In schools much fewer hours are allotted to the teaching of the Nenets language. As a result, young people either have no command of the native language or the language standards have been considerably deteriorating.

The Nenets language is still used domestically. Folk stories and tales in the native language are passed on from generation to generation. There is some educational literature available, as well as folklore publications, works by Nenets poets and writers, and the newspapers «Nyaryana Vynder» (Red Tundra Dweller) and «Nyaryana Ngerm» (Red North), which appear in the Nenets language. In the Nenets, Yamalo-Nenets and Taimyr Autonomus Okrugs, once a week there is a thirty-minute-broadcasting service in the Neents language. In 1993–1994 Finnish TV shot two documentaries in the Nenets language.

They study the Nenets language in schools, colleges, institutes, and universities. Today, they started teaching the Nenets language in kindergartens. Unfortunately, children communicate in their own tongue only in the first (preparatory) grade. From the 2nd to the 8th grade, the Nenets language course is compulsory, and in the 9th grade, optional. The colleges of Naryan-Mar, Salekhard, Dudinka, and the Russian State Educational University of Saint-Petersburg (Faculty of the Peoples of the Extreme North) teach the Nenets language, history, culture and traditions of the Nenets people.

Nenets schools focus on the study and propagation of the native language. School classes are provided with study materials, folk tales and poems in the native language.They have been using computers to study the Nenets in the village of Gyda, Tazovskiy District (teacher G.P. Yar). Video-films are used for extra-curricular studies in Yar-Sale (teacher V.M. Ser-Pivo). In the majority of schools and boarding schools, weeks and ten days of the native language and recital contests are held. In the schools of the village Tazovskiy, they study museums and folklore groups (teachers V.A. Sablina, K.V. Salinder). In the villages of Nyda, Kutopyugan, and Tarko-Sale, folklore and dancing groups enrich children’s knowledge of the native people and their language.

In the course of teaching some new forms and methods of language study emerge, depending on the technical equipment of the school and level of language command by the students. some children entering school speak the language of their ancestors freely, others, only a little and still others do not know the language at all.

This brings up the need for retraining teachers of the Nenets language with a profound awareness of ethnic psychology, history, traditions and the customs of the people. Teachers should specially be trained to work with students who have poor or no command of their own language.

Whether the Nenets children will remain children of Nature, whether they will retain the wise traditions of their own people and their language will be determined by the state of school today and tomorrow and the state of native language teaching.

The Nenets schools should resolve this objective of teaching the native languages and bringing up children via native language.

But what course will the Nenets school take in future?

In the first place, the people who are the keepers of their own language and culture, the creators of their unique way of life, should exrepss their opinions. I the second place, the issues of school teaching and education prospects must be addressed.